Friday, September 28, 2012

The Betamax Fallacy: Putting Nuclear Energy in a Green Straitjacket

betamax
A Betamax machine
Energy is energy – and producing electricity doesn’t have an ideological bias. But how electricity gets produced is another matter. It involves interactions between government, industry and citizens, which quickly gives it an ideological cast.

In England, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas, the first Green Party member of parliament offer what represents energy manna to them in a recent Guardian article:
If there weren't already a solution at hand, we'd have to be frantically hunting around for one. But the fact is that there is - renewables, combined with a serious drive for energy conservation, which would also have the added benefits of making our homes more comfortable and our air more breathable.
They put this at the end of the article, the capper on a loosely reasoned piece on the downsides of nuclear energy, which they call  the Betamax of the energy world. I wouldn’t even call Betamax the Betamax of the videotape world – it was a technologically superior alternative to VHS -but the image resonates for those over 30, so it works even if It isn’t quite accurate.

The article isn’t quite accurate, either.

Interestingly, the authors do not argue that nuclear energy is past its sell-by date or technologically dubious. Instead, they try several other kinds of arguments: it’s unreliable (counterintuitive), it’s managed by companies (Irrelevant), and it’s too expensive (an old favorite). Let’s take a look at these arguments.
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It is immensely and unpredictably expensive. Even a group called Supporters of Nuclear Energy is now questioning the cost of nuclear to the UK.
Building new facilities is expensive, true, but the second part puzzled me. I clicked through on the link and found – that it isn’t true.
The Supporters of Nuclear Energy have told the Chancellor that current pricing proposals would give nuclear power an unnecessary subsidy and provide EDF, the French state-controlled group, with a huge return on its £14bn investment in the first two plants.
Here’s what the group really thinks:
SONE feels the odds are being stacked against nuclear because it is being lumped together with wind power and other subsidized renewable energy sources in the price set-up to “create a level playing field.”
It was leveled for renewable energy, though,not nuclear energy.

But what about the argument that the high cost of building a facility should keep it out of the energy mix?

I took a look over at the Energy Information Agency to see how a relatively objective source tabulated the cost of different energy sources, taking into account construction and other elements.

Here’s what it says about nuclear energy (focus on the dollars per megawatt hours in this admittedly dense prose):
At a 5% discount rate, the levelised costs of nuclear electricity generation in OECD countries range between 29 USD/MWh (Korea) and 82 USD/MWh (Hungary). Investment costs represent by far the largest share of total levelised costs, around 60% on average, while O&M [operations and management] costs represent around 24% and fuel cycle costs around 16%. These figures include costs for refurbishment, waste treatment and decommissioning after a 60‑year lifetime.
And renewable energy:
At a 5% discount rate, levelised generation costs for onshore wind power plants in OECD countries considered in the study range between 48 USD/MWh (United States) and 163 USD/MWh (Switzerland), and from 101 USD/MWh (United States) to 188 USD/MWh (Belgium) for offshore wind. The share of investment costs is 77% for onshore wind turbines and 73% for offshore wind turbines.
In other words, nuclear energy stands up pretty well in head-to-head cost comparisons.
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It is by its nature monopolistic.
What they mean here is not that the facilities are built by single companies that illegally squash competition, the usual meaning under U.S. antitrust law, but that they are built by companies and not by communities. This feels like a philosophical underpinning of the Green Party, so of you agree with it, fine, join the Greens; if not, also fine, don’t join the Greens. It’s not really an argument against nuclear energy per se, but a preference for energy that can be generated very locally – solar panels on roofs, windmills in the backyard – and maybe wind farms for a town. Feels very Whole Earth Catalog, but it has a back-to-the-Earth appeal.

Remember: the Greens have one member in parliament.
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Fifth, it is unreliable. If a handful of plants are responsible for a large percentage of Britain's power, sudden shutdowns could have hugely disruptive effects - as sweating Japanese salarymen in their suddenly non-air conditioned offices found after the Fukushima disaster. A power system reliant on nuclear can never be a reliable, resilient system.
This one’s just ridiculous and even a little offensive. Happily, they don’t try a comparison with “reliable, resilient” renewable energy or the wind, as they say, would be out of their sails.
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However I try to square these arguments, the authors keep warping reality to force electricity generation into the Green straitjacket they’ve knitted for it.  When ideology overrides a people’s energy needs, as in Germany, the result can be impressively severe. Call it the Betamax Fallacy – defined as “dismissing good technology for bad reasons.”
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I cherry picked three of the five points offered by the authors to keep the post contained. The other two are “It’s slow to build” and “it isn’t renewable.” Tackle those, if you’d like, for extra credit.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Contest: Help NEI Name Its New Conference Rooms! Ends Oct. 3

We just announced a new friendly Facebook contest to help NEI name its new conference rooms. For details on the contest and to enter, you must visit NEI’s Facebook page. Don’t forget to ‘like’ our page while you’re there!

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Rock the Vote on Nuclear Energy

The Wall Street Journal has up a single item poll. The single item?

Should the world increase its reliance on nuclear energy?

Go on over to the site and cast your vote. As of Wednesday morning, the totals were 80 percent yes and 19 percent no. That’s 20 points to make up! (Not that we’re suggesting how you should vote – but then again, this isn’t Beyond Nuclear dot com either. Just saying.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Data Centers: Not Exactly About Nuclear Energy But All About Energy

datacenter
No Commodore 64s at the data center.
The New York Times takes a look at large data centers, the warehouses of computers that power large web sites like Amazon and Facebook and Google (and plenty of others). We’ve noted these in the past because many of them have set up in places like Illinois, Virginia and North Carolina – that is, states well covered by nuclear energy – but many with a strong desire to use renewable energy – to the extent that some of them want to install their own wind farms or solar arrays.

We called this silly then but now, the Times' year-long investigation has revealed a rather more alarming angle, because the data centers are environmental sump holes:
At least a dozen major data centers have been cited for violations of air quality regulations in Virginia and Illinois alone, according to state records. Amazon was cited with more than 24 violations over a three-year period in Northern Virginia, including running some of its generators without a basic environmental permit.
And wasteful consumers of electricity, which is more relevant to this discussion:
Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.
Data centers are essentially factories that may be too new in kind to have effectively understood how to marshal resources to maximize profit. (I can’t believe they are designed to be wasteful, as implied above.) After all, nuclear energy facilities require considerable energy themselves, but successfully manage resources to make the production of electricity affordable. This is as true across industries that hope to stay in business.

The sudden rise of data centers hasn’t been matched by good procedure or an understanding of how to maximize output - a lot of the computers at the data centers, for example, consume electricity and do no or very little computation. That’s where the waste piles up.
A senior official at the data center already suspected that something was amiss. He had previously conducted his own informal survey, putting red stickers on servers he believed to be “comatose” — the term engineers use for servers that are plugged in and using energy even as their processors are doing little if any computational work.
“At the end of that process, what we found was our data center had a case of the measles,” said the official, Martin Stephens, during a Web seminar with Mr. Rowan. “There were so many red tags out there it was unbelievable.”
The story doesn’t really explain why those servers are not being used – probably to kick in if another server fails – but the lack of a process to identify them and determine how many have to be flipped on to act as back-ups is just bad planning. The Times suggests that this is because careers ride on containing outages, thus the fear not to use every available server. Maybe that’s part of it – maybe the bottomless bank accounts at some of these companies just make it easier not to really fret about it – or about the electricity bills. It all gets paid.
In addition to generators, most large data centers contain banks of huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries — many of them similar to automobile batteries — to power the computers in case of a grid failure as brief as a few hundredths of a second, an interruption that could crash the servers.
“It’s a waste,” said Dennis P. Symanski, a senior researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit industry group. “It’s too many insurance policies.”
I wouldn’t call the story a horror show of energy malfeasance – there’s no evidence that these data centers have destabilized the grid, though that day could come. But the story also makes clear that these operations can run smoothly:
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, which consists of clusters of servers and mainframe computers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, ran at 96.4 percent utilization in July, said Jeff Broughton, the director of operations. The efficiency is achieved by queuing up large jobs and scheduling them so that the machines are running nearly full-out, 24 hours a day.
That’s about as good as a nuclear energy facility, although queuing jobs may make more sense for processing scientific data than for sharing funny kitten videos – one thing is not like the other. It also suggests that the lab uses all the resources it has rather than all the resources it can buy. You don’t have to worry about an efficient outcome if you can just throw more resources at an issue. Cut the number of servers in half and watch efficiency skyrocket.

Is there a role for nuclear energy in this story? Yes, but mostly because it’s there, in those states with the data centers. If the grid has stayed stable, it’s because of the 24-7 nature of nuclear energy (and fossil fuels, too). These data centers say they would prefer intermittent renewable resources – which I think would put to use all those diesel backups referenced in the story in no time flat. Using wind power sounds good when an data center official is talking to Greenpeace, but these companies did move to states with inexpensive electricity supported by nuclear energy. I’m not saying one thing led to the other – there’s no evidence of it - but there it is.

But this is more a story about unintended – I hope – malfeasance in a relatively immature industry. Assuming the hot water doesn’t scald, there’s plenty of room for a course correction. Step one, start queuing those jobs.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Japan to Exit Nuclear Energy – Maybe – Maybe Not

This is from the New York Times:

In an abrupt turnabout, the Japanese government on Wednesday stopped short of formally adopting the goal it announced just last week — to phase out nuclear power by 2040 — after the plan drew intense opposition from business groups and communities whose economies depend on local nuclear power plants.

Color me – surprised? The decision made last week had the political benefit of not impacting most of the officials who supported it and seemed to split the difference between business interests and people wanting to move away from nuclear energy. No one had to think very hard about it because nothing drastic was going to happen for quite awhile.

It turns out a lot of people gave it some thought.

But business groups criticized any move away from nuclear power as impractical and a death knell for Japanese manufacturers, which have already lost much of their competitive edge to cheaper rivals elsewhere in Asia. And communities across Japan that host nuclear facilities feared losing government subsidies, tax revenues and jobs.They also worried that they would become the final dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel stored at their plants.

I’m sure the plants weren’t planning leave fuel rods along the side of the road as they sped out of town, but the overall point seems about right – nuclear energy facilities can be very strong economic engines in their communities and shutting off those engines can have a terrible impact. (I think the 2040 date was meant to soften any such blow, but people clearly aren’t buying it.)

The role of business here was very strong:

A day earlier, the chairmen of Japan’s most prominent business associations, including the influential Keidanren group, called a rare joint news conference to demand that Mr. Noda abandon the 2040 goal. On Wednesday, they praised the cabinet’s decision.

That’s bringing to bear a heck of a lot of pressure. Business often gets a bad rap, but they are employers, too, so trying to rescue themselves means rescuing a lot of workers, too.

There’s a lot more to Hiroko Tabuchi’s story. Do read the whole thing.

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To be fair, the story referenced above, or rather its counterparts in the Japanese press, has gotten some pushback from the government.

"Don't get me wrong," [Prime Minister Yoshihiko] Noda said Friday. "We did make a cabinet decision" on the nuclear phase-out policy on September 14.

"Japan will seek a no-nuclear society in the 2030s and will realize it.

"With an unwavering attitude, we will implement various policies based on this principle. This is a huge policy change that we have made with a genuine determination."

My guess, and it has to be a guess, as relevant cabinet documents have not been translated yet, is that the government is keeping things very ambiguous to try to keep different constituencies content. If I’m right, it appears not to be working.

In any event, this is still a decision that will not have an impact until many of the politicians involved have left office and the Japanese government will have changed parties a few time – maybe more than a few, given recent history. A lot could still happen.

NEI Energy Markets Report (September 10-14, 2012)

Here's a snippet of what went on in the energy markets last week:

Electricity peak prices were mostly down last week. Prices at ERCOT-Houston, PJM West, and the Northeast hubs fell substantially, dropping $27, $20, and $11/MWh, respectively. Prices at Palo Verde and the Southwest hubs rose marginally, in the face of a heat wave. “Largely defying a typical pre-weekend tick higher, power prices for Sept. 17 delivery moved in both directions across the U.S. on Friday, Sept. 14, but with the bias mostly lower as traders focused on softer gas prices and mild fall weather rather than mounting outages or the return of business-related demand early in the next week. … The cost of gas could have heightened influence at the power markets in the coming weeks as large baseload reactors drop offline for routine seasonal maintenance. In total, almost 39,000 MW of supply is already offline nationwide, up about 4,000 MW on the day, according to data from IIR Energy. By fuel, there are more than 14,000 MW of coal-fired outages, more than 5,700 MW of gas-fired outages and almost 12,800 MW of nuclear outages” (SNL Energy’s Power
Daily – 9/17/12).

Uranium spot prices fell to $47/lb U3O8 last week. “Demand is currently weak in the spot market, on the part of all groups – traders, financials, utilities, and producers. The relative lack of demand on the part of traders is somewhat derivative of the fact that demand is weak in the mid-term market, and hence traders do not have much motivation to delve into the spot market to buy and hold to meet mid-term needs. A non-U.S. utility recently entered the mid-term market, but beyond this, there is not much demand. Price is falling to a point where it may spur more interest on the part of utilities, but it still may have some way to go to stimulate any notable demand by this group” (Ux Consulting’s Ux Weekly – 9/17/12).

For more of the report click here.

A Nuclear Energy Question We'd Like to See Asked in the Presidential Debates

Over at AOL Energy, Margaret Ryan spent some time talking to a variety of policy analysts to devise some questions about energy policy that reporters ought to ask during October's Presidential debates.

As you might expect, this one caught our attention:
What's the future role of nuclear power? Can the nation have a serious climate policy without a serious nuclear one, including finally confronting the issue of nuclear waste? How should the US deal with nuclear waste? Would the candidate endorse continued research and development work in small modular nuclear reactors?
Here's hoping that question gets asked. For more information on the debates, click here for more from Politico.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

France to Reduce Nuclear Capacity by 33%–in 15 Years–Maybe

Fessenheim

Fessenheim

After the big, but rather ambiguous, news out of Japan, some reports have tried to join it to a less big but no less ambiguous declaration out of France:
In Paris, President Francois Hollande confirmed his campaign pledge to cut the share of nuclear power in France's energy mix to 50 percent by 2025 from 75 percent. At the same time he urged the European Union to set tough targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions for 2030 and 2040.
"We have an ambitious strategy," Hollande told an environment conference, calling for a 40 percent cut in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030 and a 60 percent reduction by 2040 at the EU level, well beyond the 20 percent target set for 2020.
Greenhouse gases are emitted mainly by burning fossil fuels - nuclear power plants are not big contributors.
“Not big contributors?” Not contributors at all. I’m going to ignore the ambitious carbon emission reduction goals for this post because – really – what can say? – Bon chance.

The story doesn’t explain what Hollande will do here. He could close a few plants until he gets where he wants to go in percentage. I looked around to see how the French do license renewals. It’s different than in the U.S., where utilities are licensed to operate for a term of 40 years and can then renew the license – for one thing, it’s largely a state run industry, so it doesn’t really need to license utilities. Instead, France groups reactors review all at once – well, over a number of months actually, but still as a singular block.
The 900 MWe reactors all had their lifetimes extended by ten years in 2002, after their second 10-yearly review. Most started up late 1970s to early 1980s, and they are reviewed together in a process that takes four months at each unit. A review of the 1300 MWe class followed and in October 2006 the regulatory authority cleared all 20 units for an extra ten years' operation conditional upon minor modifications at their 20-year outages over 2005-14.  The 3rd ten-year inspections of the 900 MWe series began in 2009 and run to 2020.  The 3rd ten-year inspections of the 1300 MWe series run from 2015 to 2024.
If I understand the process correctly, Hollande has a fairly open mandate to close nuclear plants as he will. The story suggests the Fessenheim facility, because it is oldest, is a prime candidate, but Hollande hasn’t targeted any specific facility yet.
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France isn’t Germany and is comparatively resource poor. Part of the move to nuclear in the 70s was due to the shock of that era’s oil embargoes. It allowed France a good deal of energy independence – it imports uranium but mostly from Canada - and drove the price of electricity relentlessly downward. Depending on a low-cost, high-yield energy source paid considerable dividends.
From being a net electricity importer through most of the 1970s, France has become the world's largest net electricity exporter, with electricity being the fourth largest export. (Next door is Italy, without any operating nuclear power plants. It is Europe's largest importer of electricity, most coming ultimately from France.) The UK has also become a major customer for French electricity.
The WNA story doesn’t really tip this but at about 4.1 to 4.6 cents per kilowatt hour, it suggests the French realize fair amount of profit – and that’s the French people, since they own the shop. Closing nuclear facilities in favor of – what? – renewable energy, perhaps? – could work locally because France needs less electricity than it currently generates, but it will cost ratepayers more and whittle away at the export market. That may not seem such a good trade, especially in a country with a voluble and politically engaged people.
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Sometimes, when it comes to energy and electricity production, you do wonder if countries shoot themselves in both feet trying to endlessly square circles, especially when the circle is doing pretty well. The nuclear energy strategy is foot one.

I don’t really have a brief on fracturing, but this seems like a shot at the other foot:
One way French energy diversification would not be achieved, Hollande emphasized, was by the environmentally controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. The relatively new technology, whose gold rush mentality has outpaced safety considerations for water table contamination and releases of methane gas – a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – will, said Hollande, remain banned in France, Euractiv reported.
That’s a harsh assessment of fracking. It is controversial, but the French approach kills it off without much of a hearing. Closing the door on it so completely should be controversial, too.

Monday, September 17, 2012

NBC Presents A World Without Electricity on Revolution


What would a world without electricity look like? That's a question that Hollywood's J.J. Abrams is attempting to answer this Fall on NBC in a new hour-long Science Fiction drama called Revolution. Set 15 years after the world's electricity mysteriously blinks out, the show premieres tonight at 10:00 p.m. U.S. EDT/9:00 p.m. U.S. CDT on the peacock network.

The full premiere episode is available as a free preview on iTunes, so I was able to catch it over the weekend. While I wouldn't want to reveal any spoilers, I'll just say that a lot of the program looks awfully familiar. If you've ever watched Life After People on cable's History Channel, you'll know exactly what I mean. But while the world the characters inhabit looks a lot like post-apocalyptic worlds we've seen on television and in the movies before, it sure seems like more than a few folks managed to stash a working blow dryer and a washing machine somewhere.

Then again, this is network television, and suspension of disbelief is always a prerequisite. That being said, I'll have the DVR to set record episode #2 next Monday night.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Japan to Phase Out Nuclear Energy – Over 30 Years – Maybe

The New York Times has the story:

In its first comprehensive energy review since the Fukushima disaster, Japan said on Friday that it would seek to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s — but only after a longer-than-expected transition that would give power companies decades to recoup their investments and brace for a nonnuclear future.

By the end of the 2030s? The Times also notes this:

In announcing the plan, however, Motohisa Furukawa, the minister of state for national policy, seemed to suggest that the measures were loose guidelines open to revision and discussion. For example, he said the government would leave to future discussion whether five reactors that would be younger than 40 years by the end of the 2030s would be forced to close — leaving open the possibility that some reactors will remain running into the 2040s and beyond.

I wondered how Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was going to thread the needle between bowing to the will of the people and the need to keep the economy from cratering – and I guess this is it.

The Times has decided this will satisfy business owners but not other factions:

“It’s trickery with words and numbers,” said Tetsunari Iida, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, a research group based in Tokyo. “The zero number might be symbolic politically, but in reality, it holds little meaning.”

“How is the government going to push through reactor restarts when there’s still so much opposition? It has no clue what to do next month, never mind by the 2030s,” he said.

I’d guess Iida is a renewables guy, so factor that in.

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There is a risk of sounding too much like Goldilocks about this news – if Germany is shuttering its plants too quickly and Japan too slowly, what’s just right?

Let me leave aside the obvious answer – don’t shut the plants down – and say, as I’ve said numerous times before, that nuclear energy is not a trap. Countries have to decide their energy profiles for themselves. Investing heavily in any energy source and then leaving it – especially when it is inexpensive and a potent supplier – is going to generate numerous economic and social issues that have to be addressed. The Japanese are explicit in saying that it doesn’t want to crater its power companies:

The 2039 time frame, on the other hand, would allow most of those reactors to live out their 40-year life span, heading off costly losses for their operators. Japanese utilities are also saddled with the huge costs of buying oil and natural gas to meet the nuclear shortfall, a burden that would be alleviated once their reactors are restarted.

So Japan has made a decision that sidesteps many of the obvious issues surrounding such a decision; it has kicked the can way, way down the road. The only conclusion I can really draw is that the story of nuclear energy in Japan is far from over.

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A word of warning. The Asahi Shimbun (a national Japanese newspaper) and other Japanese outlets offer accounts of a meeting between Japanese officials and U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman about the long nuclear exit, but I couldn’t find an American source about this. That’s a red flag – not because the Japanese reports are inflammatory or even wrong necessarily, but you want to be careful about stories in translation. (The absence of it in the Times story is another reason for caution.)

There’s also some talk in the stories about the Japanese hording coal and natural gas and causing higher energy prices worldwide. This is highly dubious at worst, idle speculation at best.

In other words, some of the reporting is less than it should be, so keep the truthiness radar on.

NEI Energy Markets Report (September 3-7, 2012)

Here's a snippet of what went on in the energy markets last week:

Electricity peak prices were mixed last week across the country. ERCOT-Houston and PJM West hubs saw the most action, rising $20 and $12 to average around $55/MWh, respectively. Prices at the Western, Northeastern and Southeastern hubs remained soft, moving less than $5/MWh in either direction. “Power prices across the United States moved mostly higher Tuesday, Sept. 4, with the largest gains recorded in parts of the East and Midwest after markets were closed Monday for Labor Day. … PJM West jumped more than $10 on the day with trades in the mid- to upper $50s, driven in part by a higher demand forecast as the PJM grid operator expects demand in the Western region reaching 69,700 MW on Wednesday. … As the Gulf Coast recovers from Hurricane Isaac's landfall last week, hotter weather and higher demand helped push ERCOT power prices higher Tuesday” (SNL Energy’s Power Daily – 9/5/12).

Average nuclear plant availability remained at 90 percent last week. After brief outages, Palisades, Three Mile Island 1, Turkey Point 3, Watts Bar 1, and Waterford 3 returned to service. Dresden 2 closed for five days to “perform maintenance work on water tubes in the unit's condenser.” Limerick 1 closed for four days for inspections, repair and testing of its low-pressure turbine blades. (Platts)

For more of the report click here.

No Need to Fret About UT-Austin's TRIGA Reactor, No Matter What Drudge Might Point To

A Mark II TRIGA reactor at KSU.
A lot of folks around the country are dealing with jangled nerves after the campuses at UT-Austin and North Dakota State were evacuated in the wake of vague threats of terrorist attack. Thankfully, the threats appear to have been a hoax.

When news breaks, the number one guy on the Web who wants to influence where the clicks go is Matt Drudge, chief cook and bottle washer at the Drudge Report. If you pop over to Drudge right now, you'll see all the screaming headlines, with just one in particular catching my eye:

Nuke Reactor Evacuated in Austin...

The first thing to keep in mind is that the reactor in Austin is on campus at UT, and it's a TRIGA Mark II Research Reactor that was constructed by General Atomics. The reactor was designed to be, in the words of Frederic de Hoffman, "safe even in the hands of a young student." The TRIGA Mark II generally operates between just 0.1 to 16 MWTh. By way of comparison, the average commercial nuclear reactor clocks in at about 1,000 MWe.

Some of our readers might recall how ABC News attempted to generate a cloud of FUD over the potential for terrorists to penetrate the security around research reactors, reasoning that the nuclear fuel could be removed to construct a dirty bomb, even though there isn't anywhere near enough fuel in the reactor to make that happen.

In other words, there's nothing to see here, though I'm sure Mr. Drudge's advertisers are happy that you stopped by.

UPDATE: I just got a short note from NEI Nuclear Notes reader, Art Wharton:

UT had its first TRIGA Mark I reactor in the basement of Taylor Hall(commissioned in the 60's), on main campus. It was decommissioned when the TRIGA Mark II reactor was built up on the JJ Pickle Research Campus ~ 10-15 miles north of main campus. Critical in 1992, it is the newest of all University reactors in the USA, including digital controls and a nice flat-screen display of the rod positions, proudly displaying a Longhorn logo background.

Hook 'em horns.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Fusion-Fission Fandango in Texas

Super Divertor XIt’s like the doublemint twins at the University of Texas at Austin.

The researchers — Mike Kotschenreuther, Prashant Valanju and Swadesh Mahajan of the College of Natural Sciences — have patented the concept for a novel fusion-fission hybrid nuclear reactor that would use nuclear fusion and fission together to incinerate nuclear waste. Fusion produces energy by fusing atomic nuclei, and fission produces energy by splitting atomic nuclei.

How does it work?

The researchers’ patent covers a tokamak device, which uses magnetic fields to produce fusion reactions. The patented tokamak is surrounded by an area that would house a nuclear waste fuel source and waste by-products of the nuclear fuel cycle. The device is driven by a transformational technology called the Super X Divertor.

The Super X Divertor is a crucial technology that has the capacity to safely divert the enormous amounts of heat out of the reactor core to keep the reactor producing energy.

I guess this means – well, I’m not sure what it means. It sounds as though the fuel rods would need to find their way to the tokamak via the Super X Divertor or perhaps the system would use something other than a fuel rod. Or I’m all wet. Let’s look for more detail.

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This illustration (also above – click for larger) suggests a two part process – a fission/fission-fusion fandango - with light water reactors operating as they normally do, and the used fuel then further processed in the fission-fusion reactor.

This second reactor can also produce energy and presumably can be rated much as fission reactors are now done, so the result will be more electricity and perhaps a good deal of process heat, which theoretically has impressive industrial applications. Perhaps the use of the Super X Divertor, which diverts the heat so as to avoid it melting the containment, gives that use added plausibility.

This article provides a few more details. I admit I’m still lost on some elements of it; for example, what would seed the fusion reaction? ITER is using deuterium (heavy water) and tritium – but I’m not sure about this project. (The reason to care is to understand better the cost implications). But there are a lot of good details here.

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Anyway, the professors have gotten some attention for their work:

Several groups are considering implementing the Super X Divertor on their machines, including the MAST tokamak in the United Kingdom, and the DIIID (General Atomics) and NSTX (Princeton University) in the U.S. Next steps will include performing extended simulations, transforming the concept into an engineering project, and seeking funding for building a prototype.

Which keeps it firmly in the university/lab sphere, for now. In describing fusion projects, I sometimes think of them as  “Today’s Technology Tomorrow,” because fusion always seems two years away from a major breakthrough. It always has, as long as I’ve followed the subject.

But one can’t help but be impressed by the amounts of ingenuity and enthusiasm being poured into fusion projects. Maybe that’s  motivated by a potentially enormous payoff for the team who can make a project practical – that is, scalable and affordable – but maybe also, even largely, for love of ingenuity and enthusiasm. Those qualities have carried the world a long ways. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Nuclear Energy Binge to Combat Climate Change

Professor Peter Wadhams off ice
This suggests an academic freak-out:
Geo-engineering techniques such as whitening clouds by adding fine sprays of water vapor, or adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere have been ridiculed in some quarters but welcomed elsewhere. Wadhams proposes the use of thorium-fuelled reactors, being tested in India, which are said to be safer because they do not result in a proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium, experts say. Also, under certain circumstances, the waste from thorium reactors is less dangerous and remains radioactive for hundreds rather than thousands of years.
Wadhams is Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University. What he’s talking about are the desperate measures he envisions as necessary to mitigate climate change.

The thorium-powered nuclear future represents what he calls a nuclear energy “binge” – the resort to thorium seems to me a bit of a hedge, but he’s only proposing not disposing. He’d probably be content enough with uranium if it came down to that.

His point isn’t about nuclear energy, but about arctic ice and the fact that it’s melting away. Even worse, underneath it - well, in Greenland, anyway - is a lot of methane.
"What we are now seeing is a fast collapse of the sea ice that means we could see a complete loss during the summer by 2015 - rather than the 20 to 30 years talked about by the UK Meteorological Office. This would speed up ocean warming and Greenland ice cap melt and increase global ocean levels considerably as well as warming the seabed and releasing more methane."
It seems unlikely that that the largest nuclear facility building project in the history of atomic energy (or the largest effort to seed clouds) would make a difference by 2015 (though it could, of course, make a big difference over time.) Which makes Professor Wadham’s call seem like a freak-out, a bit frantic, but even if that were true, he’d has plenty of reason for it.
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Wadhams has been talking about the snow melt for awhile (I mean, beyond the fact that it’s his specialty.) I poked around the Cambridge archives and found this from 2010.
However, comparing the sea ice extent that had been predicted by the IPCC models for recent years with what was actually observed shows that the models, as they stand, underestimate the rate at which the ice is disappearing. Wadhams believes that this is due to feedback loops which come into play as more ice melts in the summer, but which have not yet been properly accounted for in the models.
So he’s been saying this for a couple of years at least and hopping ahead of other experts – I think the Guardian has picked up on it now because of the recent dire warnings about the methane lurking under the ice. Already, a fair amount of seepage has been recorded.
Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers say this ancient gas [ancient because the methane’s been there since antiquity] could have a significant impact on climate change.
Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2 and levels are rising after a few years of stability.
But If read the stories correctly, it’s tough to pin down how much methane is there, though a fair amount of inquiry is devoted to figuring it out. But here’s the thing: if the ice melts away by 2015, then there isn’t much time before the methane escapes its icy prison (though I think it lies under the ground, not the ice, so it won’t all go in a single burp.)

In any event, the goal ultimately might be to account for the methane in calculating its impact, not to keep it where it is. Professor Wadhams’ geo-engineering ideas might intend to produce snow in the Arctic, but it seems very unlikely to happen. So, frankly, does a nuclear energy binge, however much that might benefit the planet in the long run and might occur, hopefully without all the implications of a binge, anyway.

Friday, September 07, 2012

NEI Energy Markets Report (August 27-31, 2012)

Here's a summary of what went on in the energy markets last week:

Electricity peak prices made marginal gains last week across the country. The largest movers were the Western hubs which increased $4-$6 to average $40/MWh in the region. The Eastern hubs barely budged and the Texas hub rose $4 to average $36/MWh. “Power prices across the U.S. moved in mixed directions Tuesday, Aug. 28, finding support from hot weather in California, across the Southwest and Texas but taking on a more bearish bias elsewhere across the country in line with weak spot gas prices. … In addition, generation remains healthy. While several units are slated to shut through September and October, a fairly minimal 22,790 MW is offline nationwide in the meantime, according to IIR Energy. The nuclear generation sector, which could see as many as 30 reactors shut for refueling by the end of the year, represents the largest market share of outages, with 8,337 MW offline. In addition, about 5,568 MW of the total is coal-fired and more than 4,000 MW is gas-fired, IIR said” (SNL Energy’s Power Daily – 8/29/12).

Uranium spot prices fell to $48/lb U3O8 last week. “Although a significant portion of the lowest-priced supply has been cleared from the market, demand remains thin and highly price sensitive at month’s end. Some potential buyers have yet to enter the spot market in spite of the recent drop in the price. In the case of many utilities, there is little room or budget available for inventory or discretionary purchases, and those interested in taking advantage of the price drop must procure management approvals before proceeding. In addition, several market participants still expect that prices could fall even further and, therefore, are delaying purchases in hopes of securing material at even lower prices” (TradeTech’s Nuclear Market Review – 8/31/12).

For more of the report click here.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

A Daft Car, Pope Benedict XVI and Nuclear Energy Present and Urgent

Kangoo
The Renault Kangoo Z.E. Ridiculous? You decide
No comment (it speaks for itself):
Pope Benedict XVI is now a bit greener.
The 85-year-old pontiff was presented with his first electric car Wednesday, a customized white Renault Kangoo for jaunts around the gardens of the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
The story mentions other green initiatives taken at the Vatican City-State.
Benedict has been dubbed the "green pope" for his environmental concerns, which have been a hallmark of his papacy. He has written of the need to protect God's creation in his encyclicals, and raised the issue on his foreign trips and in his annual peace messages.
Under his watch, the Vatican has installed photovoltaic cells on its main auditorium and joined a reforestation project to offset its carbon dioxide emissions.
The Vatican City-State is 800 or so people strong and sits on 110 acres in the middle of Rome. How much influence could it have?
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I like electric cars because they reduce carbon emissions and because nuclear energy is a plausible source for powering them. But it wouldn’t be fair if I ignored Pope Benedict’s view of nuclear energy. Here’s what he said in 2007 marking the 50th anniversary of the International Atomic Energy Agency:
The Holy See, fully approving the goals of this Organization [IAEA], is a member of it since its founding and continues to support its activity. The epochal changes that have occurred in the last 50 years demonstrate how, in the difficult crossroads in which humanity finds itself, the commitment to encourage non-proliferation of nuclear arms, to promote a progressive and agreed upon nuclear disarmament and to support the use of peaceful and safe nuclear technology for authentic development, respecting the environment and ever mindful of the most disadvantaged populations, is always more present and urgent.
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I’d never hear of the Kangoo before. Over at Top Gear is this opinion:
The ridiculous-looking Renault Kangoo is actually an inspired choice for families on a budget. It’s huge inside, can cope with all the clobber a couple of kids bring with them and really is cheap.
And:
It looks daft, isn't luxurious, has zero status and yet does its job brilliantly.
And this is a positive review. I think Top Gear may have hit on the reason Renault called it Kangoo. The review seems to be of a gas-powered Kangoo (the electric one is called Kangoo Z.E.), but let’s assume the electric and gas versions are equally daft.

I couldn’t find the origin of the name Kangoo -  a toddler’s attempt at kangaroo, maybe? In French, it’s kangourou. Kangou would probably not be easily grasped outside France. Here's Renault's page for the car. Try not to laugh.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Turkey: Nuclear-Natural Gas Quid Pro Quo?

No argument here:

One of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Turkey has significant energy needs. The majority Muslim nation’s energy demands will double by 2023, according to one projection.

Nuclear Energy perhaps? Turkey has contemplated it for some years, but lacked a partner to help cover the expense of building the facility- running nuclear energy plants is inexpensive, building one is expensive. Now it has a partner – and in an arrangement that seems close to unique:

The $20 billion venture will be wholly financed by a subsidiary of Rosatom, Russia’s state-controlled nuclear energy corporation.

The Russian firm has agreed to build, own and operate the plant for its entire productive life, with spent fuel sent to Russia for reprocessing. The deal represents an unprecedented level of cooperation between the former adversaries.

Various Turkish officials have a lot of questions about this, some of which involve national sovereignty, always a touchy subject. For example, Turkey doesn’t have a nuclear regulator at present and it’s uncertain whether the new plant will be regulated by the Russians or the Turks. Additionally, it isn’t clear which country will decommission the facility. To be honest, these items can be worked out in time – I suspect it is the Russian connection that gives them an air of urgency.

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Most interestingly, though, there is the strong implication that Russia isn’t doing this solely (if at all) out of the kindness of its heart:

Gas- and oil-producing giant Russia has enlisted Turkish support for its proposed South Stream pipeline to diversify its access points to European markets.

There’s no direct evidence of quid pro quo, though plenty of evidence of heavy negotiation that included both the nuclear facility and the natural gas line – almost every story I looked at yoke them together, which suggests, at the very least, that the two projects represent a single unit that will proceed in sync. In fact, Turkey and Russia signed 17 (mostly) energy-related agreements in one go, which in itself has aroused a good deal of concern in Turkey.

But most of that number [$100 billion in trade] comes from Turkish imports of Russian oil and gas, and some Turkish energy experts cautioned that the increase would do more good for Russia than for Turkey. The deal for the nuclear plant, scheduled to be built over seven years in the Mediterranean city of Mersin, raised further concerns among some Turks of relying too much on Russia.

This is from the NY Times and it too keeps the natural gas and nuclear projects closely linked. Still, even if there is more correlation than causation here, I wondered if there was more to the Turkish involvement in the natural gas line.

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Indeed, there is a kind of race going on between Russia and Europe to build a viable natural gas line to serve European markets, with Turkey involved in both of them.

The South Stream gas pipeline is intended to provide a direct connection between suppliers and consumers, thus avoiding transit risks and guaranteeing a continuous energy supply for Europe. Nabucco on the other hand, aims to bring Caspian gas supplies to Europe to reduce dependence on Russian gas imports taking a northern route from the Turkish-Bulgarian border to Austria.

The story doesn’t really explain what Nabucco is all about, but it does point out that diversifying the supply of natural gas is important – and it is. Let’s take that as a given.

Nabucco is a consortium formed by Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria. The European Union supports it and so does the United States – because much of the natural gas will come from Iraq. The pipeline itself stretches from Turkey to Austria, with feeder lines from Georgia and Iraq.

The South Stream line, meanwhile, will carry Russian natural gas through Bulgaria and Turkey and on to Italy. This already tortuous route is necessitated by bypassing Ukraine, which wants no part of the project (Russia accused Ukraine in 2006 of stealing natural gas flowing though the latter, a conflict that got bitter quickly; in 2009, Russia rather roughly shut down the natural gas supply to the west for reasons not fully explained, stranding some countries, such as Bulgaria, in the middle of a harsh winter. See here for more on that). Losing the Ukrainian option meant involving Turkey, even if it provides a less than ideal route.

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Check out the Nabucco and South Stream web sites for a more complete accounting of the pipelines. Note, too, that I have no brief on natural gas pipelines and their doings. In the parlance of American politicians, no winners and losers here. (Both pipelines serve a practical purpose and both serve natural gas-poor Europe. If Nabucco backstops Russian petulance, consider it a bonus.)

In the end, what’s really worth discussing is a 1200 megawatt Russian nuclear facility at Mersin. It’s ultimately up to the Turks to decide if that’s a good idea and so far, and with some dissent, the decision is – yes. It works for Turkey.